24th Sep 2023

The Green Deal's deadly secret — asbestos removal

  • Asbestos is responsible for 55-85 percent of occupational lung cancers each year (Photo: Unsplash)
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Under the Green Deal, some 35 million buildings in Europe will be renovated or demolished by 2030.

A necessary renovation, says Claes-Mikael Stahl, deputy general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), but one that will lead to an increase in the number of workers exposed to asbestos, a component widely used in the construction sector and a potential respiratory hazard.

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According to the International Commission on Occupational Health (ICOH), asbestos is responsible for 55-85 percent of occupational lung cancers each year, and could claim up to 90,000 lives in Europe.

"Asbestos is still in buildings of the 1960s and 70s, getting old, falling apart, being inhaled," Eric Jonckheere, president of Belgium Association of Asbestos Victims, told ETUC. "People need to be aware of this".

Although asbestos was banned in the EU in 2005, about 220 million buildings were constructed in Europe before that date, and its symptoms can appear after a latency period of 20–40 years.

"Workers have paid with their lives for low safety standards for too long," commented Stahl in a statement released for the Workers Memorial Day (Friday, April 28). "We know now that asbestos is Europe's most deadly workplace threat, so there is no excuse for half measures".

Between 4.1 and 7.3 million workers are exposed to asbestos in the construction, renovation, waste management and fire-fighting sectors. A figure that is expected to rise by four percent over the next decade due to the wave of European renovations that will come with the Green Deal, according to the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI).

The EU is reviewing the limits below which it is considered safe for workers to be exposed to this material.

Last September, the EU executive proposed revising the directive to cut the limit tenfold to 0.01 fibres per cubic centimetre.

According to a commission study, this reduction would mean a reduction in asbestos-related cancer deaths from 884 to 26 over the next 40 years.

It would also reduce the health costs of caring for these patients, which range from €270 to €610bn a year (1.8 to 4.1 percent of EU GDP).

The European Parliament's employment committee has already approved its position, which will now be voted on by all MEPs.

"The text adopted today meets a triple requirement: a health requirement for prevention, an equity requirement to reduce health disparities, and a methodological requirement to base legislation on scientific data," said Renew Europe MEP Véronique Trillet-Lenoir, who drafted the report, in a later statement.

If the limit is reduced to the level proposed by the commission (and reflected in the parliament's text), some member states such as Denmark, France, Germany, or the Netherlands would have to lower their limits significantly.

The council already defined its position at the end of 2022, so the final three-way negotiations (the so-called trilogues), will start once the parliament's employment committee report is adopted in plenary.


EU lawmakers under pressure to act on 90,000 asbestos deaths

The EU Commission has watered-down a broad political initiative —but now governments of member states hold the key to what the EU should do. Some member states and regions have adopted asbestos strategies of some kind, from Poland to Flanders.


Asbestos — two to three times more deadly than known

Where once working men in heavy industry were diagnosed with cancers related to a more direct exposure to asbestos, now women in professions such as teaching, nursing and other occupations are being diagnosed, as well as young people.


No Green Deal without social fairness

If the green transition occurs to the detriment of workers who will be laid off or replaced, if it exacerbates inequalities and poverty, and negatively affects our economies, societies, and social protection systems, it will lose support. It will fail.

EU clashes over protection of workers exposed to asbestos

EU parliament is calling for more protection for workers exposed to asbestos, the main cause of workplace fatalities in the EU, while member states remain more cautious and will call for a review of its mandate.

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